UCF pioneers floating solar farm industry
Florida, a place characterized by ever abundant sunshine and water, is now home to one of the nation’s pioneer teams in the field of floating solar farms.
Funded by UCF’s Sustainability Initiatives, five UCF engineering students successfully designed and installed their senior design project in an on-campus pond this March, where it now feeds the university’s power grid.
Rebecca Shea, a member of the team, said that the floating solar farm allows the renewable resource to be implemented in a space that couldn’t otherwise be used for agriculture or development.
“It is relatively new, but I think that it’s something that’s going to take off really exponentially, because you’re opening up a whole new field of space that can be used,” she said.
The project is backed by David Norvell, assistant vice president of UCF's Sustainability Initiatives, and constitutes an effort toward the university’s environmental pledge to be climate neutral by 2050.
Norvell said that when the university put together its climate plan in 2007, one of the intermediate milestones was to reach 15 percent of energy consumption by renewable resources by 2020.
“This is a way to get us partly there,” he said.
The ten solar panels are located behind the Bright House Networks Stadium and serve as a prototype for a model 200 times its size, which would ultimately offset the stadium’s entire energy consumption.
In an attempt to connect students with the operations of the university, Norvell explained he turned to the UCF community with the idea.
“It’s hard to believe that young people like us can do that,” said Geoffrey Gregory, a member of the team. “I think that’s what’s most surprising to people, that we don’t have our professional engineer stamps, we don’t have our degrees yet, but the university trusted us with this huge project and it works.”
After a semester of designing, the team moved on to the implementation of the prototype with the help of Ciel & Terre, an international company that provided the floating base system.
The floaters look like giant Legos, made of high-density polyethylene.
“[The system is] very easy to install but also very easy to dismantle and recycle it," said Eva Pauly-Bowles, international sales director for Ciel & Terre. “You can recycle 100 percent of the material. No other form of electricity can really do that. If you want to stop a nuclear power plant, good luck with that.”
Pauly-Bowles, who works with communities primarily in Japan to install these systems, said that this is only the second project she has worked on in the U.S., adding that she commends UCF for taking the initiative and involving students.
“We, as a community, you as a community on-campus, should choose where your electricity comes from,” she said. “Maybe I don’t want thermal gas that is imported from the Middle East. Maybe, I want to be able to build my own solar garden in my backyard because this is electricity that I believe in, and this is what I can build.”
Norvell said that the office of sustainability is completely supportive of moving forward with the full-scale project once a few barriers are overcome.
“We want to be out there as leaders in this as a university, we want to be leaders in the community in enjoying this technology and proving it so we can continue to employ it,” he said.
His concern now is finding the necessary funds to support the large-scale model, which would need to be allocated from the university in the form of general education dollars from the state.
He said his office has to consider a wide range of energy efficiency and energy production projects and prioritize them, focusing on those that have a pay back associated with them.
The pay back period for the full-scale solar farm, if implemented, would be between 10 to 15 years, Norvell said.
On the ground, team member Rubin York said the team’s primary concern is the impact the rig would have once the full-scale model is implemented.
“The engineering aspect is already there,” he said. “Now it’s just scaling it up, but the question is what kind of effects do you get when you do that.”
He said one of the biggest steps forward for the full-scale rig to occur is an in-depth study with the biology department that analyzes the environmental effects the farm is having on the local ecosystem. The group of five, which also includes Rudolph Jara and William Rumplik, is now working on overcoming those hurdles.
If implemented, the floating solar farm would produce one out of the eight megawatts that the university has committed to producing from renewables by 2020.
“You don’t really realize that what you’re capable of until you do something like this,” Gregory said. “When we all first started talking about this project, we had no idea the extent that we would go with it, and now that it’s in place, it’s something that’s empowered us to take on bigger tasks in the future.”
Daniela Marin is a digital producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @dan__marin or email her at DanielaM@CentralFloridaFuture.com.